COVID: The Role of Medical Affairs Teams in Public Health

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on a global scale. Infections continue to spread rapidly as the death toll rises.


The World Health Organization, national governments and pharmaceutical companies are strategizing on how to deliver a vaccine with speed and efficiency. Now, more than ever, medical affairs teams can play an impactful role in disseminating scientific information to the public.

Here we look at what MA teams can do to educate the public about the pandemic and stamp out the spread of misinformation.

Educate the Public

There is plenty of information about COVID-19; however, not all of it is accurate or reliable, writes Tim Newman at Medical News Today. Medical affairs teams from hospitals and pharma companies should correct, wherever possible, any false information.

Take the issue of wearing face masks. Debate has raged as to whether the average person — not working in healthcare — should use a mask. The CDC, says Newman, has advised people to wear a cloth face mask when in public spaces and unable to maintain a safe distance from others.

However, Dr. E. Hanh Le, senior director of medical affairs at Healthline Media, says that “for the average person in the community, […] masks are not a viable option.” People get a false sense of security when wearing them, he explains, and can still get infected by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching their eyes and face, or if drops of the virus enter through their eyes. Masks are best worn by healthcare workers as well as people who are already ill in order that they don’t spread the virus.

Dr. Kenneth Polonsky, executive vice president of medical affairs at the University of Chicago, says the medical center has a “universal-masking policy,” with masks being used by asymptomatic employees to prevent “respiratory droplets from landing on surfaces or other people.” He argues that strict social distancing and ending furloughs for asymptomatic employees will enable essential workers to continue working to protect patients. These are necessary messages for the public to hear as it removes doubt and fear, and focuses on facts.

Checklist to Prevent Misinformation

Medical affairs teams need to respond to misinformation as it happens so they can mitigate the potential damage brought about by falsehoods and misunderstandings, write Madhavi Kasinadhuni and Pam Divack at The Advisory Board Company.

MA teams can encourage the public to follow only trusted sources of information such as official news accounts on social media, key opinion leaders and pharma companies. Additionally, they should correct false information whenever possible. That means ensuring their pharma organization is in agreement about the virus and the measures needed to stem the spread. It also means reporting misinformation they see online.

Communication should be clear, consistent and repeated to resonate with the public. It’s best to reiterate the leading advice on staying safe. Dr. Christopher Doehring, vice president of medical affairs at Franciscan Health, notes that “social distancing is paramount whether at home, work or in public places,” and confirms that you need to keep your hands clean and don’t touch your face. Hand-washing must be thorough, with soap and water, lasting at least 20 seconds. Sanitizer needs to be at least 60 percent alcohol and rubbed in until your hands are completely dry.

Checklist Prevent Misinformation

Connect With the Media

To stop misinformation and educate the public, medical affairs teams need to connect with the media. A good example is Dr. Sonal Bhakta, vice president of medical affairs at Mercy Hospital in Arkansas, who recently spoke to a news outlet about the pandemic.

Indeed, Bhakta says MA teams have a duty to share information with the public about how to best manage the pandemic and how hospitals are adapting processes and ensuring the safety of their employees and patients.

Mercy Hospital, for instance, has a triage nurse speak with patients over the phone to see if they are likely to have been infected. If infection is suspected, they visit a drive-through testing facility. Cases that require hospitalization are kept in a separate COVID-19 unit, with a team of hospital workers that remain separate from the rest of the hospital.

Boost Pharma’s Reputation

There’s a lingering distrust of pharma. The public is skeptical of pharma’s intentions and believe they’re motivated by financial gain only. How pharma responds to the pandemic could help change those public attitudes, says Nicholas Florko at Stat News.

The solution will be for drug developers to be transparent and pragmatic, not promising anything they can’t deliver. “It’s like a reset button for them,” said Pallavi Kumar, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communication. “In times of crisis people want heroes, even if those heroes were villains in the past.”

Medical affairs teams could use their scientific insights and communication skills to help guide the public through the pandemic, revealing the work pharma is doing.

Share What Pharma Is Doing to Fight the Virus

Pharma is doing much to fight the virus. Richard Torbett, CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, says they are working with the Department of Health and healthcare providers to determine how best to adapt to the virus.

Indeed, about 20 pharma companies have potential medicines in various stages of development, according to the ASBI. Medical affairs teams are best placed to share this information with government departments, healthcare providers and the public.

For example, AbbVie has teamed up with the FDA and European health authorities to investigate whether HIV drugs will treat COVID-19. Other examples include:

  • Boehringer Ingelheim, which is collaborating with academic researchers to fast track project submissions to develop therapies and diagnostic tools.
  • Johnson & Johnson, which has a COVID-19 vaccine candidate and plans to begin human clinical trials by September 2020, with “the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine to be available for emergency use authorization in early 2021.”
  • Pfizer, which is screening antiviral compounds that inhibit coronaviruses — like those causing COVID-19 — from replicating in culture cells.
  • Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi SA, which have launched a clinical program for hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
  • Takeda, which is trying to develop a drug derived from the blood of patients who have recovered from the coronavirus.

Find Off-Label Use For Existing Medicines

Work is being done too with medicines we already have. Dr. David Fedson, for example, is committed to fighting pandemics using generic drugs. Before he retired, Fedson worked as director of medical affairs at Aventis Pasteur MSD, a French vaccine company that no longer exists. Sam Apple at Wired writes that Fedson is looking at existing drugs to see if they can treat symptoms of COVID-19 as researchers attempt to find a new vaccine.

Generic drugs that Fedson has long considered include blood pressure medication and metformin for diabetes. While there’s no guarantee, they could have a “modest effect” on COVID-19. That is important because even “a modest effect could be the difference between life and death for tens of thousands of people,” Apple explains.

Immunology researcher Ruslan Medzhitov, a professor at Yale University School of Medicine, puts it this way: “My gut feeling is that in the end some simple treatment to reduce respiratory crisis might be all we need to reduce mortality. I don’t think there is a good scientific reason these ideas are not taken seriously.”

Helping doctors and hospitals understand the off-label uses of drugs has always been an important role of medical affairs teams. The pandemic makes this responsibility even more relevant

Off-Label Use

Focus On Digital Processes

In-person meetups are no longer possible so digital engagement is now crucial. Medical affairs teams need to own the digital space to ensure their scientific messaging reaches the right audience. Dr. Jill Massey, senior vice president of medical affairs at Melinta Therapeutics, says the communication tactics are the same — it’s the medium that’s new.

She notes that MA teams need to learn quickly how to leverage these digital tools, ensuring that they build trust with stakeholders and the general public. Doing so now will stand them in good stead because the MA role is going to be forever changed after the pandemic ends.

Push For Decentralized Trials

Pharma has been focusing for years now on how to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of clinical trials while also streamlining costs.

Decentralized, hybrid and virtual trials have been the proposed answer but current circumstances could well propel the adoption of new trial methods. Alison Holland, head of virtual clinical trials at decentralized trial platform Medable says current trial models aren’t fit for purpose when trying to recruit and retain patients and improve efficiency.

Traditional trials are also not possible amid a pandemic. Virtual trials could be the solution.

Use the Time to Upskill

With in-person engagements out of the question currently, MA teams and medical science liaisons likely find themselves with more free time, writes Sarah Jarvis, global lead of medical affairs at management consulting firm ZS Associates. To focus their energies into effective causes, they should find out how they can support other departments in their organizations or add personnel power to essential therapeutic areas such as respiratory.

Jarvis says MA teams can also use this opportunity to identify nagging to-do list items they can complete. They should also consider taking the time to upskill, focusing on soft skills and business acumen. Upskilling should also involve MA teams embracing and adapting a more digital approach to their role.

Medical affairs teams know that communicating health narratives based on scientific facts is how to connect with patients, physicians and other stakeholders. In a pandemic, this truthful information is more necessary than before, as misinformation can be damaging to public wellbeing. By focusing on digital tools and processes to share their messaging, MA teams can help the public navigate through a tumultuous time.


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